The Relationship Between Slavery and RacismThe relationship between slavery and racism is no doubt undisputed. However, there is a deeper, "chicken and egg" question there: Was African slavery the...

The Relationship Between Slavery and Racism

The relationship between slavery and racism is no doubt undisputed. However, there is a deeper, "chicken and egg" question there: Was African slavery the cause of racial prejudice; or did a preexisting prejudice against those of African descent lead to their enslavement? I wrote a rather lengthy paper on this topic several years past and concluded (safely, I thought) that racial prejudice preexisted. I received a rather long email from a distinguished scholar who respectfully disagreed and cited considerable evidence to that effect. This is an issue that perhaps has no right/wrong answer; but I would be curious to hear the ideas of others who may have researched the topic. 

Asked on by larrygates

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Because the Africans that were captured and sold as slaves were treated not like human beings, but like property, I believe that prejudice and racism grew from this practice.

Women, for thousands of years (with some exceptions, like the Anglo-Saxons), were viewed as inferior. They were considered, every "28-days" to be literally insane. (See the etymology of "hysterical.") For many years, they could be killed by their husband without anyone raising an eyebrow, and institutionalizing them for any reason was not uncommon. Women did not have a voice. There has been a radical change, though this kind of prejudice still exists in some places.

Blacks were treated like farm animals. They were "bred" so that a plantations/owners could have more slaves, and therefore, more hands to run the plantation. Women were raped by their owners, families were split apart and sold, killing a black man was not a criminal offense, and for most slave-owners, everything was done to break the spirit of the captives sold into slavery.

Slavery was not in itself a new concept. It was practiced during biblical times, especially the taking slaves of those defeated in battle. Slaves were considered the "spoils" of war.

However, the idea that blacks were less than human beings, I believe, was born and grew in the United States; from doing research in the past for my "Mockingbird" unit, and the reading of "A Wreath for Emmett Till," research has suggested that a slave holder could not be accused of unChristian-like behavior in the ill-treatment of slaves, if slaves were considered animals, chattel, rather than people. And as with prejudice of all kinds, it still exists today, even though the educated mind can see no basis for seeing African Americans as anything less that the equal of every other race.

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valtaylor | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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The concept of slavery without racism existed in the past. In ancient history, the practice of slavery was formed out of tradition, and unquestionably accepted.  Slaves were usually taken in small numbers as prisoners of war, and it was an inevitable fate for most men who risked battle. As time passed and city-states emerged out of the dark ages, a new kind of slavery appeared from the conquering of populations.

In Athens, Plato and Aristotle popularized the philosophical distaste for Greeks who owned Greeks. Although he opposed the exploitation of Greeks, Aristotle supported the institution of enslaving barbarians in his work entitled Politics. He reasoned that the foreigner has “lack of reason and moral capacity for public life”.  Calling them “natural slaves”, he argued they were made for servitude.

Considering this, I would argue that racism evolved out of need to distance oneself from the inhumane treatment of another individual and continued to be passed down from generation to generation to the detriment of millions. I believe however, that increased communication and education has led to the reversal of such attitudes and will continue to do so in future generations.

 

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I am by no means a historian, but I seem to remember that the origins of slavery, at least as far as we know, lay in the conquering of one group by another, with no racial implications whatsoever in most instances.  This suggests to me that the racism that existed and that exists to this day in the Western world, and most particularly in the United States, was a rationalization created after the fact to try to justify enslavement.  In very early instances of slavery in which there were no racial implications, the mere act of conquering served as a justification.  I wonder to what degree, the stigma of slavery has remained against a group where there is no external and immutable characteristic, i.e., race, to alert people to a prior, stigmatizing status. 

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lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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I tend to believe that there was a pre disposition to racism before slavery. I would also agree with others that slavery probably played a big role in the racism experienced by blacks in the United States after slavery.

larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I must voice my agreement with #7.  Superiority has been an element of Western Europeans since the Aryans first left the steppes. Originally, it was their possession of horses and superior weapons that gave them this feeling; later when Western Europe became "Christendom," its identification as a Christian island surrounded by a heathen world lent itself to this feeling of "holier than thou." Then too, they were white, the color associated with being pure, virtuous and godly, whereas black implied evil, immoral and downright dirty. It is for that reason that in my research, I determined that racism (or at least a feeling of racial superiority) preceded African slavery, although the two are closely connected.

To #2, yes, I did indeed consult Winthrop Jordan's White over Black. For those interested, my research is online at http://www.historydoctor.net/Advanced%20Placement%20United%20States%20History/Paper%20-%20Relationship%20between%20Racism%20and%20Slavery.htm

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I think slavery is most deeply rooted in the human psyche. Human beings have enslaved each other in various cultures since Biblical times, at least, and continue to do so today throughout the world. The driving motivation seems to be the need to dominate others and to exercise control over them for financial gain and for the psychological satisfaction of feeling powerful.

The African slave trade existed for financial gain, but these other motivations surely formed its subtext since human nature does not change. It can only be held at bay by the more enlightened among us.

It seems to me that racism made the enslavement and sale of African human beings socially acceptable in England and the English colonies, and later in the United States. It "explained" the unexplainable and "rationalized" abominable acts. At the heart of slavery lay greed, always, but racism was the social norm and made owning slaves a normal way of life for those who could afford it.

Were Africans targeted for enslavement by whites for reasons of race? Certainly. Would white slaves been accepted by the English and their descendants? I can't imagine it. But other factors were in play, as well. Africans lived in lands that were geographically convenient for slave traders, and they lacked the means to effectively resist their attackers. They were easy prey for the predators.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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I have always been led to believe that Africans themselves "catagorized" themselves according to status even among black people.  They were the ones who originally enslaved one another based on this social ladder, and sold each other to the slave traders from Europe who, in turn, took them to the US and sold them there.  Am I way off base?  In classes I took, we were told that the prejudice existed before slavery as the United States citizens knew it, and I'm not so sure it wasn't the barbaric dress and ways of life the Africans followed that did more to turn "civilized" white people off than their skin color.  The colonists disliked the native Americans, too, for that very reason--the Indians were not "civilized" as defined by white Anglo-Saxons.

Despite all of this, there were some slaves who were treated very well, and who even became extremely wealthy after the Emancipation Proclamation due to inheriting land and other items from their former owners who treated them much like family. 

I have always been led to believe that Africans themselves "catagorized" themselves according to status even among black people. 

All societies have classes, so not a unique European or African situation. There is a difference, of course, between categorization and slavery, between social status and legal status.

They were the ones who originally enslaved one another based on this social ladder, and sold each other to the slave traders from Europe who, in turn, took them to the US and sold them there.  Am I way off base?

Read some of Olaudah Equiano's accounts of his enslavement both by African tribes and then by slave traders.  The African system of slavery and the European one are barely comparable.

In classes I took, we were told that the prejudice existed before slavery as the United States citizens knew it

Sure.  One could probably argue that prejudice has always existed, in every culture throughout history.  But, again, there is a difference between prejudice and racism.  One is more extreme than the other.  And the issue is, did enslavement cause racism, not did it cause prejudice.

I'm not so sure it wasn't the barbaric dress and ways of life the Africans followed that did more to turn "civilized" white people off than their skin color.

Barbaric dress?  Ever see a Puritan hat?  Plus, unless I was actually comparing African tribal fashions to European Barbarian fashions, I'm not comfortable at all with the term as a legitimate descriptor of ancient African cultures, even if they do clash with the Judeo-Christian viewpoint of "civilized".

The colonists disliked the native Americans, too, for that very reason--the Indians were not "civilized" as defined by white Anglo-Saxons.

Yes, they were racist against Native Americans too, whether they were "civilized" or not.  Just ask the Five Civilized Tribes the US government marched to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.  Doesn't seem like civilization played much into that decision as did two other factors: economic opportunity and racism - two factors which also, incidentally, were central in the debate and development of slavery in Colonial America.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I have always been led to believe that Africans themselves "catagorized" themselves according to status even among black people.  They were the ones who originally enslaved one another based on this social ladder, and sold each other to the slave traders from Europe who, in turn, took them to the US and sold them there.  Am I way off base?  In classes I took, we were told that the prejudice existed before slavery as the United States citizens knew it, and I'm not so sure it wasn't the barbaric dress and ways of life the Africans followed that did more to turn "civilized" white people off than their skin color.  The colonists disliked the native Americans, too, for that very reason--the Indians were not "civilized" as defined by white Anglo-Saxons.

Despite all of this, there were some slaves who were treated very well, and who even became extremely wealthy after the Emancipation Proclamation due to inheriting land and other items from their former owners who treated them much like family. 

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Reply to #4:

Absolutely there was.  But another point to consider is that much of European slavery, in Russia, for example, and other feudal systems, the slavery was class-based, not race based.  Slavery, therefore, without a racial component did exist, but not without some legal and social system of superiority/inferiority to define it.  It lends some credence, I think, to the idea that slavery could cause racism, if it did, in fact, cause class distinctions to be specifically defined in other socieities.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I could be wrong here, but was there not an innate cultural and racial superiority that white Europeans felt they had before the institution of slavery ever existed? And of course, slavery isn't just a Western institution. Other nations as well would provide an interesting comparison as to whether slavery or racism emerged first.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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I use this topic as a discussion in my AP class at the beginning of the year to teach critical thinking.  There is also a pretty concise, specific set of arguments on the topic in the college text, Taking Sides.

I come down somewhat in the middle, leaning towards the argument that slavery caused racism, but I don't think we can define it in such stark yes or no terms.  I think, more accurately, slavery didn't cause racism per se, but it accelerated it and more clearly defined it legally and socially.

In the early slave/plantation communities in Virginia and South Carolina, there were few specific laws governing slaves, the behavior of slaves, or their legal status as property.  As the colonies developed and the number of slaves grew, so did the pressure to 1) codify their place in society; 2) empower slaveowners and slavedealers; and 3) restrict slave behavior and access to society, education, etc.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

If you wrote this extensively on the topic, you must have read Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black.  I find his argument to be compelling.

He argues that there was a preexisting inclination among English people, at least, to equate blackness with evil and other negative traits.  They felt this way before they even knew some humans were "black."  This predisposed them to look at black people and assume they were degraded (especially when they were also "primitive").

This does not mean, though, that slavery did not add to racism.  The institution of chattel racial slavery certainly added to this preexisting inclination.

So I do not think you can say that racism caused slavery or that slavery caused racism.  There were racist tendencies before slavery, but they were exacerbated by that institution.

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